What made The Shack — a self-published Christian novel by a first-time author, William P. Young, originally written for his children with no thought of a wider audience — so phenomenally popular for a few years about a decade ago?
Like many popular sensations, from Titanic to Twilight, from Dan Brown to Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels, The Shack is easy to rip apart if one has a mind to. It’s too didactic for drama, too literal for allegory, too artless for poetry, and too fuzzy for theology. The writing is folksy and florid; when Mack falls in his driveway, he doesn’t just get a bump on his head: The lump emerges “like a humpbacked whale breaching the wild waves of his thinning hair.”
Although an enthusiastic cover blurb from Eugene Peterson compares The Shack to Pilgrim’s Progress, generically and thematically it’s somewhat closer to C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. Lewis’ brilliant book, however, focuses on familiar foibles of human nature; Young attempts a portrait of sorts of the divine nature.
The Shack is essentially an imaginative exploration of theodicy, of the problem of evil, experienced not in the abstract, but as an existential crisis of faith. More broadly, it could be called a response to disappointment with God and disillusionment with religion.
Its reassuring message is that, in spite of all the suffering and evil in the world, God really is good, all-powerful and loves us very much. Exactly how that works is a mystery we can’t fully understand; we must ultimately trust in God’s goodness, even in the face of suffering and evil and despite our limited understanding. Ignorance and pain tempt us to sit in judgment of God, not to mention our neighbor, but this is a mistake: We don’t know enough to judge our neighbor — even the neighbor who greatly sins against us — let alone God.
Going a bit further into theodicy, The Shack adds that evil and suffering are connected to human freedom, and that while God does not cause evil, he is always with us in our sufferings and always works to bring good out of evil. In the end, if we trust him, all will be well.
These are all creditable themes, though execution is a separate question. One can also question The Shack’s depiction of God: The Holy Trinity is represented as a sort of family whom the protagonist usually perceives as a warmly maternal black woman, Jesus in his humanity, and an ethereal Asian woman. Of course one can question any depiction of God, from the Sistine Chapel ceiling to Aslan, so what have we really said?
The Shack doesn’t say God is actually like this; it says that this is how God chose to manifest himself to one particular person: one Mackenzie “Mack” Philips, played in the film by Sam Worthington (Hacksaw Ridge; Avatar). Well, who can say God wouldn’t choose to appear this way to someone? No imaginative interpretation of God is more than a half-truth, if that.
Why does God appear to Mack at all? Mack is a broken soul, a man with three great traumas in his life. His father was a physically abusive drunk who beat both Mack and his mother. At the age of 13, Mack killed his father by mixing poison into his liquor. Finally, Mack grew up, married a good and pious woman named Nan (Radha Mitchell) and had three kids — the youngest of whom, Missy (Amelie Eve), was abducted, presumably sexually assaulted and murdered by a serial killer.
This last horror is eating Mac alive, robbing Nan of her husband and their older kids, Kate and Josh (Megan Charpentier and Gage Munroe), of their father. One snowy day a note arrives for Mack, inviting him to spend a weekend at the abandoned ramshackle cabin in the woods where his daughter’s torn, blood-soaked dress was found. The note is signed “Papa,” Nan’s familiar nickname for God the Father. (This seems to be based on a common misunderstanding of Jesus’ term Abba. You can call God “Papa” if you want, but Abba isn’t “daddy.”)
Angry, suspicious and fearful, Mack heads out to the shack and finds it both as he expects it to be and completely different. He discovers a landscape that can’t exist, an idyllic, bucolic world akin to walking into a Thomas Kinkade painting. And there he meets God.
Why at the shack? “This is where you got stuck,” says Papa, looking more like Octavia Spencer than a character called that normally would. Asked about this, Papa adds, “After what you’ve been through, I didn’t think you could handle a father right now.” Spencer also plays a kind neighbor who was solicitous toward Mack as a child; apparently God has chosen to meet Mack where he’s at, taking a form that means something to him, at least subconsciously.
I guess “God meets us where we’re at” sums up my take on the value of The Shack for its fans. Like Kinkade’s paintings and a lot of popular praise music — and faith-based films — it’s kitschy and maudlin (and those aren’t just snobby critical terms; they’re real problems in art purporting to tackle big issues). But God meets people even in the kitschy and maudlin, just as he meets people even in suffering and tragedy. (Not that this justifies either.)
If your idea of God is a distant, stern authoritarian who smites sinners and isn’t particularly concerned with the sufferings of his children, then the disarmingly amiable divinity who meets Mack at the shack may be a welcome corrective. I don’t know how many people today have that problem; I suspect the popularity of The Shack has more to do with confirming people’s worldviews than challenging them.
In any case, Spencer’s Papa is approachable and easygoing; when Mack asks her if he was really free not to come if she knew what he would do, you’ll be hard-pressed not to think of Oracle from The Matrix. I like her laid-back response when Mack finds her apparently catching some rays and skeptically asks her about it: “You have no idea how many things I’m doing right now.”
Jesus (Israeli actor Aviv Alush), too, is friendly and relaxed, and if it’s hard to imagine this Jesus calling fishermen to leave everything and follow him or railing against scribes and Pharisees, that may be baked into the cake. The Holy Spirit appears as a somewhat abstracted young Asian woman who goes by the Sanskrit word for wind or air, Sarayu (Sumire Matsubara). In one sequence Papa appears as a solemn, grandfatherly Native American played by Graham Greene. We also see divine Wisdom personified (Brazilian actress Alice Braga, The Rite).
Paradoxically, while God assumes the forms he does for Mack’s benefit, Mack can only be helped by a divine presence who looks like almost anyone on earth except him: a black woman, a Middle-Eastern man, an Asian woman, a Native American man, a Latina. It’s a clean sweep of exoticizing the other, although, in fairness, Jesus has been Middle-Eastern since the Annunciation. (Perhaps the exotic-othering can be seen as another divine condescension?)
There are things I like about Mack’s cathartic journey. The best of these is the film’s central metaphor for healing, in which the various endeavors of Jesus, Sarayu and Mack himself come together in a ritual act often minimized or undervalued in our culture. If only there were more metaphor and fewer platitudes.
Young’s novel has been theologically critiqued for tending toward universalism, antinomianism, antiecclesiasticism and more. I’ve browsed the book, and I can see the basis for these charges, but the film, adapted by screenwriter John Fusco (Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron) and directed by Stuart Hazeldine (Exam), is a slightly different animal. (For instance, the line “I don’t create institutions. Never have, never will” is not uttered by the film’s Jesus. On the other hand, Jesus does imply that as long as people know Papa, it doesn’t matter what religion they belong to.)
Notably, Mack’s experience is framed entirely as a journey of healing, as opposed to a journey of redemption. The movie is all about how Mack is broken and needs fixing; we never hear that he is a sinner who needs to repent and be redeemed. It’s something that might have come up, given that, whatever the mitigating circumstances, Mack killed his own father.
Mack has to get over his anger at God, accept loss, forgive his daughter’s killer, and learn to be there for his wife and family. He has to learn to forgive; if he needs forgiveness from anyone, we don’t hear much about it. It’s very much a therapeutic vision.
The Shack departs from the maudlin kitsch of Kinkade and much American Christian culture in attempting to tackle great suffering and darkness: domestic violence, patricide, abduction and murder of children. Alas, the juxtaposition only serves to highlight the shortcomings of maudlin kitsch. The Shack sets itself a problem it can’t possibly resolve on its own terms: When your kid has been murdered by a serial killer, all the chicken soup for the soul in the world isn’t enough.
On the one hand, The Shack tells us that God is good and loving and is the author of only good things, and that evil is connected with human free will. Yet the film seems to have a hard time holding any particular person responsible for their actions. Mack’s father was physically abusive because of how he was treated by his own father. Even Missy’s killer is only what his own father twisted him into being.
If everyone is simply the product of their environment and upbringing, then how is it that God isn’t responsible for evil? For all the skeptical challenges Mack throws at God, the one line I kind of wanted to hear him say was “So what if my father was beaten by my grandfather? He still had a choice. Look at me: I was beaten by my father, and I never abused one of my kids. Let alone abducted little girls and abused and murdered them.”
Is it possible that The Shack suffers for the absence of any suggestion of a diabolical presence? Theologically God has no need of Satan, but might a story about God and evil perhaps have a dramatic need for the devil? Of course, the presence of the devil would also have to color the rest of the picture, or the effect would be like those Kinkade parodies that put Black Riders or Imperial forces and such into his gauzy tableaux.
Part of the problem with The Shack is that it’s all about Mack.
Missy’s horrific death matters mostly because of how it affects Mack. Whatever grief or suffering Nan is going in connection with the loss of her baby is eclipsed by her concern for her husband and their marriage. Teenaged Kate has become a bit distant and we’re told that she’s struggling with guilt over Missy’s death, but it’s all connected with Mack’s feelings; as soon as Dad comes around we know the whole family will be right as rain.
Almost Nan’s first words to Mack are to absolve him of responsibility — and although the movie shamelessly plays on exaggerated parental fears that predators are always lurking and waiting for us to turn our backs, however briefly, on our children, it couldn’t be clearer that it wasn’t Mack’s fault, since Mack looked away from Missy only because one of his other children was in mortal danger.
For all its issues, this Shack doesn’t warrant being condemned. I can’t recommend it, but I can see why this story has moved so many people, and it’s not all bad. At least it asks hard questions about God, which is a step above not admitting that hard questions exist, like God’s Not Dead. Compared to a lot of faith-based fare, it’s practically John Bunyan. Well, not Bunyan, but at least Eugene Peterson.
Caveat Spectator: Domestic abuse; implied patricide; implied sexual abuse and murder of a young girl. Teens and up.